What Baby Boomers Taught Millenials About Business and Life

By September 29, 2011

My generation of young professionals — the Millenials, born mostly to Baby Boomer parents between 1975 and 1995 – is largely stereotyped by our elder predecessors as a hapless army of sloppily-dressed, job-hopping scatter-brains with no appreciation for the sacrifice required to achieve the ‘American Dream’. Given the accusers, it’s a fairly accurate assessment. Flattering even. You see, while the hard-nosed corporate ethos of our grandparents, appropriately labeled as the Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, is what dragged this great country out of two World Wars and a Great Depression, our parent’s legacy of debt, outsourcing and pollution leaves little appeal for repetition. The path to the American Dream is quite literally broke, and most certainly in need of a fix.

There was a time when it seemed the Flower Children would bloom into an idealistic class of enlightened tycoons. Having seen the ravages of war, racism and blind obedience to the military industrial complex, they brought epic concerts to muddy fields, women to the board room and connectivity to the world. Then, they lost their edge. They bought big houses, used them as piggy banks and filled gas-guzzling SUVs with corn syrup chugging fat kids waiving Chinese-made American flags on the way to the doctor’s office to pick up more pills. Meager retirement savings got sunk into irrationally exuberant tech and housing markets while outsourcing all the jobs at the companies they inherited until none were left to be had. Blue water and green forests turned black. Black revenue arrows turned red.  Their children watched a generation of flabby, tie-wearing, burned out souls sit in traffic for hours just to fall behind on bills and never see their loved ones.

Before I ride too far on my high horse, it’s worth pointing out that the chips were stacked against Boomers. Maybe they never even stood a chance. The free-flow of information ushered in by the Internet meant a generation of middle-aged dogs had to learn a slew of new tricks unreasonably quickly. Suddenly, mid-career, every job requirement became a performance metric to be recorded and measured against the potential gains of automation, outsourcing or virtualization. Newly enabled direct sales channels, like online travel booking and stock trading, eliminated entire industries of middlemen. Billions of worldwide job candidates entered the workforce with sharper tools, lower wage requirements and more advanced skills for gobbling snippets of scattered information. A newfangled device was thrust into Boomer’s collective Palm somehow requiring an unflinching eye be kept on an ever-growing Inbox. Research, documentation and distribution they were expert trained to execute in days could now be taken care of by novices in minutes. How were they to compete? Age – experience even – became a strategic disadvantage.

Aided by the emergence of the Internet and mobile technology late in our adolescence (for perspective, I’m 28 and got my first high speed connection, laptop and cell phone freshman year), Millenials pioneered new ways of connecting and collaborating both personally, professionally and academically. In the midst of choosing our paths in the proverbial real world, our parent’s safety nets, confidence and competence sunk deeper into the red-white-and-blues, so we decided en mass that economic recovery and personal joy could not be found by walking the same rigid path. Like it or not, here’s what we learned:

  • Loyalty, at least in business, will get you nowhere. I’m sure the ‘good company man’ waiting around for a promotion is a swell guy. He’s probably even due for a raise. But you’re looking for a leader to improve upon the status quo, so it’s unlikely that a patiently consistent grunt is the best candidate within a global pool of eager and increasingly mobile applicants. I wish the “culture of internal promotion” inevitably touted during the interview process was a sustainable reality, and there is certainly something to be said for the surety of cultural fit and innovation that comes with advancing an aggressive up-and-comer, but Millenial’s exposure to boom-and-bust job markets inclines us to keep a constant eye on the next opportunity. If nothing else, we feel obligated to dabble with the fast-track to success that the aforementioned plodder passed up in favor of stability. It doesn’t look like pensions and 401ks will be of much value in our futures either, so why stick around?
  • Life’s too short to wait for retirement. Maybe we’ve all taken one too many European vacations where foreigners scoff at our pittance of paid time off. Maybe we’re an entitled generation of spoiled brats who think we’re too good to wait in line at Disney during the two-week Holiday Season. Maybe we’ve seen too many fortunes lost and lives ended prematurely to wait for a someday that rarely arises. Whatever the case, our need for a life full of adventure and camaraderie far outweighs the perceived merit of foregoing time with family and friends in favor of late nights at the office. Honestly, the risk of quitting and having to find a new job seems far more attractive than waiting for accumulated vacation time as the bucket list grows indefinitely.
  • Owning stuff is overrated. To borrow a theme from Ryan Bingham, our parents had very heavy backpacks full of too many objects and not enough experiences. They bought homes, offices, cars, desks, servers and ‘As Seen on TV’ products galore only to find that these very items they coveted weighed down their businesses and social lives more than they perked them up. Now we know better, and Software-as-a-Service (SAAS) companies like SalesForce.com, car sharing services like ZipCar and flexible co-working spaces like WeWork (sadly, Chicago has none to feature that I’m aware of) are thriving. Kindergarten worked! We learned to share. Borrowing has never looked better than buying.
  • Offices are unnecessary, and sometimes counter-productive. Talent is everywhere. We’re skilled collaborators. Connecting via voice, video or email is instant. Why waste time and pollute our air just to sit next to each other?
  • Dressing for success means NOT imitating your boss. People who spend their professional lives poring over contracts and spreadsheets are seemingly doomed to wear suits for all eternity. Lucky for them, they’re well paid. For the rest of us, ‘business casual’ is gradually transitioning from meaning slacks and a button down (at least for guys) to the more literal interpretation of whatever you feel comfortable doing business wearing. That’s not to say that suits, ties and the like are banned. Far from it. It just means dressing however you feel best represent yourself. Hoodied Zuckerberg imitators aside, that may very well mean dressing more formal than your boss. It may also mean wearing a t-shirt to a meeting with execs if that’s how you feel most comfortable. The point is individuality, not conformity is to the road to achievement.
  • My rich uncle is not named Sam. In fact, that guy’s a pickpocket. In the days when I actually received a paycheck from an employer, a large part of the money I hoped to receive went to Social Security. This contribution to my supposed safety net was not optional, as the optional of directing money to a 401k or IRA is. Yet it has been made quite clear by the federal government that the Social Security system is beyond repair and that my generation should not plan to receive a lick of the benefits our parents will suck dry in their later years. Still, my peers are forced to continue paying in. Going back to the theme of job hopping and taking vacations, the risk of swinging for the fences seems far more reasonable than waiting for a lifeline that will never arrive.
  • Heavy lies the crown of economic superpower. The stars and bars got lazy on the job. Instead of making valuable items at fair prices, we paid wage slaves in other countries to make stuff cheaper and developed a ‘service based economy’ in which we did little more than pass along information with a smile. It turns out we’re not the only ones with computers, and the US fell behind ‘developing nations’ in terms of maintaining a skilled labor force. Now we know the competition lurks everywhere and we’re wise to grow eyes on the back of our heads going forward.
  • Repetition is replaceable. Innovation is not. All humans are equally capable given equal resources. We’re a competitive bunch too, so progresses in efficiencies are inevitable. This means I had better improve at what I do for a living or somebody else will come along with a way to do it faster, cheaper and stronger. Seen a new face around the office recently? Noticed your boss’s door is more distant than usual (literally or metaphorically)? Your output better be improved from last year, or you’ll likely get called into the boss’s office on a quiet Friday towards the end of the month to be informed about the ‘opportunity for new beginnings’.
  • The only thing that can’t be outsourced is your network. The old “It’s who you know, not what you know” axiom has never been more true, but, to be more clear about what’s changed, your RELATIVE network is now your net worth. I know this goes against my previous mention talent and resources being easy to find, but there’s still a difference between recruiters hitting the web for candidates and you reaching out to personal contacts for investments or job opportunities. The problem is that everyone, even social introverts, now have networks well beyond their most jovial and diligent predecessors. We have to keep pushing to make more connections, whether they’re physical, virtual, emotional, professional or otherwise. More connectedness means more pressure to keep pace.
  • Sensitive is the new masculine. There’s a reason Don Draper and Jack Donaghy thrive as essentially the same character in different eras.  Draper, the dapper macho man executive who would never be seen letting his emotions get the best of him. Donaghy, the dapper macho man executive who wears his heart on his sleeve.
  • Independent is the new feminine. It used to be that a strong woman stood by her man. Now a strong woman doesn’t need her man. That’s attractive, and if you think I’m uncharacteristically evolved seeking a woman who can take care of herself, take a look at modern hip-hop lyrics, which have historically been dominated by misogyny. The “independent woman” is who men want. For a secure person, a mate who can take care of herself is simply more desirable than one who can’t.
  • It takes two to keep up with the Jones’s. Prices are dictated by what the market can afford. The mothers of Millenials largely trail-blazed the road for women in the boardroom. Not in the ‘Rosey the Riveter’ sense of covering for our boys overseas. In the sense that woman are equally capable even when the boys come home. That means it now takes two salaries to afford the lifestyle your neighbors are providing for their families. If either side of a couple happens to be phenomenally successful, that’s fantastic, and the other may opt to stay home and focus on the family. But, it’s just as likely there will be a house-dad as a house-mom, and far more likely there will be neither.
  • Buy and hold is dead. This is referencing more than just stocks, although I’ll get to that in a moment. Strategies. Commodities. Properties. They’re all equally likely to go out of vogue in this world of constant competition-fueled innovation. As for the stock market, it’s simply become too easily manipulated by short-term investors who thrive on volatility and have superior information to the Average Joe. It’s a bad bet for the casual investor looking to grow their nest egg. Investing in anything takes constant decision making and risk. There are no more blue chips to put in your pocket for a rainy day.
  • There is no off duty. If a boss or client wants to reach you, they can, and they’ll find someone who will reply quickly if you choose not to reply. Sure, there are 4-Hour Workweek dream jobs where you can remain largely unplugged, but that’s a rare exception. That phone we’re constantly rattling away on? Sure, sometimes we’re checking out bikini pictures on Facebook, but we’re also replying to emails and compiling documents that are all considered urgent by the receiver. Our parents fell behind by checking out at 5 PM. We won’t — we can’t – repeat that mistake.
  • Sustainability, in all forms, really does matter. The Oil-lobby funded right wing can bury their heads in the tarry sand all they want about the Climate Crisis. It’s real, and the burden has been left on Millenials to reverse the course of our planet’s degradation. Our business practices and personal lives need to account for their impact on the future. This applies to financial accountability too. Propping up the stats for over-emotional stock holders and kicking the debt-can down the road are no longer acceptable. If what we’re doing today is setting up tomorrow for disaster, we need to change what we’re doing today.

A great deal of the above is generalizing, circumstantial and probably doesn’t apply across the board to any individual member of the Boomer generation. My parents have always been loving, well-intentioned, hard workers, and along with their peers they did wonderful things for my generation. The country is secure. There’s a chicken in most pots. We’re living to fight another day. If the above comes off as overly critical of the hands that fed us, keep in mind that it is the product of retrospect during a particularly turbulent socio-political time.

The lessons we learned will evolve. Most knowledge is only gained after a series of mistakes, and my children will assuredly see Millenials as the same caricature of buffoonery I reserve for perennially faltering Boomers. These lessons are simply the ones we learned at this stage in our history. Valuable ones too. I look forward to the year 2040 when some young punk digs up this article and eviscerates my naiveté. Maybe it will even my own sun. Until then, all we can do is strive to do better.